Time to fish: Congress needs to direct a space junk clean-up mission
The Biden administration’s recently released implementation plan for addressing orbital debris — space junk — is another inside-the-beltway toothless wonder. It’s time Congress step in and legislate action on orbital debris, instead of accepting this policy’s approach of “paralysis by analysis.”
The new White House “National Orbital Debris Implementation Plan” provides 14 pages of PowerPoint-like bullets, with palatable big picture goals, but no specific direction for an Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology demonstration mission.
Instead of a call to action with direction to design and launch a long-overdue ADR technology demonstration mission within the coming decade — an obvious next-step to address space junk — this latest administration plan instead dives deep into the safe and often obscure bureaucratic waters of “assessments, studies and analysis.”
In true Washington policy style, the White House plan suggests more surveys, more research, “best practices, guidelines and websites.” As our national and commercial assets on orbit are at risk of being destroyed by space junk, space users will not rest any better knowing there may be better risk assessments, survey data or a new website for monitoring of space junk.
The obvious action that’s missing from this “plan” is the direction by the Biden administration to build and launch an ADR mission during their remaining years in office. Such a mission, if led by American industry and academia in partnership with the government as a technology demonstration, is completely doable.
With this administration publishing pablum on an urgently important space policy issue, it’s time for Congress to step in and do the right thing. Congress should direct NASA to partner with a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) on an ADR technology demonstration mission, launched by 2025.
In addition to proving capabilities that will help protect our own on-orbit assets, an ADR technology demonstration mission that publicly captures and deorbits a large chunk of space junk will show the world that the United States recognizes the seriousness of this growing high-frontier threat.
An ADR mission also will jump-start new business lines for innovative American aerospace companies, large and small. Instead of waiting another decade for “studies, assessments and analysis,” U.S. businesses will witness mission success, sense opportunity and gladly step up to make space cleaner and safer, while also making a profit right here on Earth.
David Steitz most recently served as NASA’s deputy associate administrator for technology, policy and strategy and as the agency’s deputy chief technologist. Steitz retired from NASA in May, concluding a 32-year career at NASA Headquarters in Washington.